Donald Trump won the US presidency partly by trashing the reputations of his rival Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill. But the Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase last week was in classic Bill Clinton style.
During the 1990s, for most of which Bill Clinton was president, the US conducted over 228,000 air raids over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The US Air Force chief of staff described it as an “air occupation”.
In August 1998 Clinton mounted cruise missile attacks on Al Qaida bases in Afghanistan and on an alleged chemical weapons factory in Sudan. These attacks solved nothing. But they were assertions of US global power at a time when there was no challenger to its supremacy.
Now the context is very different. The US has been weakened by the Iraq war and the financial crash, and is dealing with increasingly assertive rivals in the shape of China and Russia. Trump campaigned against the over?extension of US resources abroad and favours improved relations with Russia.
So why this Clintonesque use of force?
One way of reading the decision is as the triumph of the national security establishment. Trump has been at war with the intelligence agencies, which brought down his first national security adviser, general Michael Flynn, by exposing his Russian connections. Flynn was replaced by a much more orthodox military man, HR McMaster.
He, along with yet another general, defence secretary James Mattis, seems to be taking charge of US global policy.
So was last Thursday, when the missiles were fired off, a night of the generals? Supporting evidence for this is provided by the earlier removal of alt-right ideologue Stephen Bannon from a senior position on the National Security Council.
The missile attacks were greeted with enthusiasm by the Atlanticist establishment both sides of the Atlantic. Newspapers previously very hostile to Trump carried headlines such as, “A strike in Syria restores our credibility in the world” (New York Times) and, “Donald Trump’s welcome show of US leadership” (Financial Times).
Certainly Trump did what Hillary Clinton and much of the US national security bureaucracy has advocated for years—he intervened militarily in the Syrian war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Barack Obama was heavily criticised for limiting US involvement in Syria.
I doubt, however, that Trump has been conquered by the generals. Bannon seems to have fallen victim to palace politics because of conflicts with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trump took this decision himself—and not just because he was upset about the suffering of the “beautiful babies” from Syria whom he has banned from the US.
The historian Greg Grandin offered a more plausible explanation in The Nation magazine. “The object of Trump’s Tomahawks was not Syria’s capacity to deploy gas,” he wrote. “But domestic liberal opponents who base their resistance to Trump entirely on the premise that he is anti-American because he is too close to Putin, and that he is a traitor to a bipartisan policy of humanitarian military interventionism.”
Trump may have also been sending a message to China, whose president Xi Jingping was visiting him when he ordered the attacks. A Chinese academic told the Financial Times, “Before we might have seen him as a paper tiger, but now might deal with him more seriously.”
The attacks still leave big questions. Has Trump reversed his administration’s earlier policy and decided to bring Assad down? This is much easier said than done. Obama’s caution over Syria reflected an understanding of the difficulties as well as the imperative of avoiding another Iraq quagmire.
The biggest difficulty arises from Russia’s support for Assad and its presence on the ground. This includes an air defence system that gives Russia control over much of Syria’s airspace. While I don’t think the generals are running the show, Mattis and McMaster are both on record supporting a tough line towards Russia.
So Trump is now mimicking his despised predecessor, vacillating over Syria and confronting Russia.